'Lookingglass Alice' at Syracuse Stage through March 14

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 03/02/10More articles
Photo courtesy of Syracuse Stage.

Lord knows there have been hundreds of Alices since Charles Dodgson’s two fantastical, symbol-laden novels about her almost a century and a half ago – “Alice in Wonderland” and “Alice Through the Looking Glass and What She Found There” – and they keep coming thick and fast. I’m not sure the version now at Syracuse Stage completely succeeds, but it’s an effort well worth the trip anyway and for sure take along any kids you can gather up, even very young ones.

We know Dodgson mostly for these two books, written under his pen name Lewis Carroll. But he was also a photographer and poet of some note. He wrote down the Alice stories because his young neighbor Alice Liddell, who was ten when he took her and her two sisters rowing on the Thames River in London and entertained them with this tale, asked him to, and the images of Alice herself that we have are those he made.

Depending on the era, there’s sometimes a certain slant to the many Alice re-tellings and riffs. When Grace Slick sang, “Go ask Alice” in the 1960s, the reference to psychedelic drugs was obvious. Others are tinged with associations to the real back-story. This Friday, as nearly everybody knows, Tim Burton’s screen version of the story opens in wide release, featuring Johnny Depp – but also framing the story as that of a nineteen-year-old Alice who returns to Wonderland after an apparent flashback jars her hidden childhood memory of the first trip. More pointedly, Melanie Benjamin’s novel, “Alice I Have Been,” came out six weeks ago, this time imagining how the real-life Alice might look back, as an older married woman, on her childhood relationship with Dodgson. Last Sunday morning National Public Radio carried an interview with Benjamin in which she made much of the speculations still surrounding Dodgson and Liddell’s “tantalizing” relationship, which ended abruptly when the real Alice was eleven. She never saw Dodgson again, her mother burned their letters and Carroll destroyed his own diary entries about her. (Listen to this Weekend Edition audio clip at the end of this review.)

Syracuse Stage is currently hosting a production from Chicago, however, that resolutely avoids such references and hews – even when updating some of the characters’ presentations for a contemporary audience – to Alice’s story as that of a child who wishes to grow up perhaps too fast for on-looking adults. Writer-director David Catlin, also artistic director of the Lookingglass Theatre Company, says that he wrote the play when his own daughter was two and a half and he already grasped how painfully fleeting her childhood. A sort of anti-Peter Pan, this Alice wants to grow up – here, become a queen – faster than is good for her. If she learns anything in her efforts to navigate growing up – here, framed as a series of chess moves – it’s that “all rule and no play” makes a poor queen.

“Lookingglass Alice” is also part of a larger approach to theater that develops stage material with circus-style tumbling, mime, clown gags and acrobatics as well as an extensive theater education program in Chicago’s public schools. Catlin’s Lookingglass Theatre Company dates back to 1988. Its partner company, the Actors Gymnasium Circus and Performing Arts School – which shares some principal players and is dedicated to “bringing a new physicality to American theater” – dates to 1995. In this mold, “Lookingglass Alice” premiered in 2005 and has had some 300 performances nationwide.

Notably, this is a difficult and costly production that required Syracuse Stage to begin preparing the building itself some eleven months ago, construct a special aluminum truss to bear the scaffolding for the lighting and aerial acrobatics, and remove several rows of seats to allow the stage to jut further into the house. That said, prepare yourself for trapeze flying and aerial rope-work, the Red Queen on stilts some of the time and on spring shoes the rest, a White Queen who grows progressively and comically younger, and a white-tuxedoed Humpty-Dumpty whose ladder provides the second-best gasp of the show. (The first best is the collapse of the looking glass over the sitting room fireplace itself, a nicely executed conceit that – even though we know it’s coming because the ads tell us there’s on-stage seating – reveals another audience in perhaps another theater on the other side.)

There is also a very funny, very arch Cheshire Cat, reincarnated as a heavily tattooed and muscled leather boy who might, strictly speaking, be a tad out of place here. But in this role, Anthony Fleming III delivers the best actually theatrical performance in the Syracuse Stage production. It’s worth noting that the show changes depending on the players available for a production and their particular circus skills. This may be behind the somewhat disconcerting fact that the program lists only five specific actors in their primary roles, although there are clearly more players working here and some are managing more than a single role. Some overlaps aren’t hard to figure out and provide a certain resonance – the actor playing Charles Dodgson seems to also be the White Knight (Doug Hara), for example – but after all the logistical effort to mount this show, an incomplete cast listing seems odd.

“Lookingglass Alice” relies on your already knowing the story and the characters as types well enough to get your bearings without much narrative, or on your being young enough that the play’s dazzling visuals and physical stunts suffice. This is not Arthur Miller (talk about a tough act to follow), but it’s also not trying to be. And Syracuse will be the richer for having this Alice take us through the last dregs of a long winter.

Cast member Doug Hara writes to assure me that the cast listing is indeed complete in the sense that only five actors comprise the entire cast, "a point of pride" making for, as he says, "lots of crazy costume changes." Nevertheless I should still like to see a complete listing of the roles each actor plays, as is customary.

A version of this review appears in the March 4, 2010 print issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. “Looking Glass Alice” runs through March 14 at Syracuse Stage, 820 East Genesee St., Syracuse 13210. For tickets call 315.443.3275; online at Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at

CATEGORY: Performing Arts
TAGS: Charles Dodgson, Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, theatre education, Lookingglass Alice, David Catlin, Syracuse Stage, Lookingglass Theatre Company, Actors Gymnasium, Tim Burton, Melanie Benjamin, Alice I Have Been, Nancy Keefe Rhodes
EDITION: The Eagle

Rating: 3.5/5 (21 votes cast)

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